Q&A: Award-winning interior designer Fiona Barratt Campbell

Posted in Interior Design
Fiona Barratt - Q&A

Though most design boffins will recognise her considerable body of work throughout Europe, Fiona Barratt Campbell is making rapid headway here in Asia. The Northumbrian designer — who has headed her own interiors firm in London for well over a decade — is best known locally for collaborating with The Upper House, and recently completed work on one of K11 Artus’s 3,703 sq. ft. penthouses — bastions of stylish living, nestled high above the revitalised Victoria Dockside development. With her first regional project in the bag, we thought now would be the perfect time to grab Barratt’s hot takes on all things design: from her love of historic architecture to challenges facing the industry in 2020.

First up, tell us how you got into the industry — it’s well-known that you initially studied at the Chelsea College of Art and Parsons School of Design. Did you always suspect you would end up designing interiors?

Fiona Barratt Campbell

As a child I enjoyed creating and building things. I’d originally planned to study architecture at university, however I quickly realised that my passion lay within the home. After graduation, my first job was for a well-known design firm in London. I gained about three years of invaluable experience there, before going on to establish my own firm — that was 14 years ago now. I’m very much a people person, so the main object of my practice as a designer is to understand and interpret someone else’s vision. The personal journey and evolutionary process you go through with each project is something that I’ll never tire of — every client is unique.

You always credit Sir Lawrie Barratt as a significant mentor and influence on your work. Tell us a little about how he nurtured your talent and/or supported you when you made the decision to start your own studio in 2006?

My grandfather [founder of Barratt Homes] was a major inspiration. I always enjoyed the fact that his job yielded something physical, and that he was creating opportunities for people to actually own a home (he was instrumental in creating the first affordable housing of its time). He was incredibly supportive of my passion for design. Point in fact: he helped me secure placement for work experience at a London-based architecture firm. That said, he had a pretty tough philosophy that every generation of our family must begin their own business without help — as he had done.

You often speak about how historic and naturally occurring phenomena has been a strong theme throughout much of your work. What about it speaks to you?

Fiona Barratt Campbell

I grew up in Northern England — where we’re fortunate to be surrounded by a variety of wonderful, very inspiring World Heritage sites that can be dated to the Roman era. I was fascinated by how progressive their building style was for their time period. That inspiration is everywhere: from the shape and pattern of their drinking vessels to the columns they used in temples and choice in building materials. In particular, I gravitate to how the Romans used natural wood. It’s a material that’s in a state of constant evolution and there are an abundance of different textures, colours and materiality — often within a single species. There’s also something very comforting about it: wood is literally grounded in nature, so there’s some aspect that’s relatable to everyone.

As somebody who works on numerous residential projects, what’s your biggest challenge when it comes to practically realising the desires of a client?

The first rule of thumb is always to foster a strong sense of mutual trust: the client has agreed to let you create their home; and so it has to reflect their own ideas and living requirements. That’s not to say there’s no underlying philosophy threading its way through every project: it’s just manifested in a unique way depending on the client. A ‘good’ interior is one that enhances, not dictates, the way in which you live. For the K11 Penthouse, I worked closely with Adrian [Cheng] to deliver on his vision for a showcase that was very artisanal, yet at the same time, capable of co-existing alongside all the unique artwork he’d sourced for K11. So the challenge was to tell the story of British craft in Hong Kong, albeit through my own philosophy of design and experience.

Just expanding on that: what were some of the unique challenges and advantages associated with the K11 Penthouse project?

Actually, the main challenge associated emerged right at the beginning. We took several months to do spatial planning, as K11 were highly specific about what amenities — storage being a key one — needed to be incorporated within the space. We managed to create a fantastic fluid layout, incorporating a view from every room. For me, the latter element was fundamental to the project because its location is so unique. On the one hand, you’re basically on the water but also have unbelievable views of Central and lush green mountains beyond. As [Fiona Barrett Interiors] are known for our unique use of texture, it was obviously crucial to include a selection of specialist finishes within the space too.

In the master bedroom, the wall flanking the steam room/shower was actually clad in antique barn wood that’s 100 years old. The wood has been tinted with silver paint that is then coated in resin, in order to make it waterproof. Whenever we sample wall finishes or joinery, we work very closely with local craftsmen — communication at every level is really key whenever you’re translating such a meticulous detail into reality.  

If we can get overly critical for a moment, what are some of the biggest challenges that have developed in the design industry over these past few years?

For me, it’s the blatant plagiarism of a brand’s products — typically furniture pieces and lighting. I have my own furniture brand [FBC London] and we’ve seen many of our own designs plagiarised in other projects. Also, in a way the deluge of information on the internet (e.g. Pinterest, Instagram) that we’re exposed to on a daily basis has made it increasingly difficult for clients to be decisive — they’ve been overexposed to so much choice.

You’ve described the object of your design philosophy as being “to enhance, not dictate, the way [clients] live”. Care to expand on that?

Homes are one of the most important spaces you’ll inhabit throughout your life. They are shelter; comfort; and an incubator of memories made amongst family and friends. Ultimately, home should be a place where you can recuperate from the toil of everyday life. So naturally, there are a lot of factors that go into creating a unique living space. I firmly believe that the interior should always enhance a building’s external elements and take the surrounding location, heritage and materiality into account. In a previous project in Mallorca — a private villa — we took some of the sand and small stones from the surrounding beach and incorporated them into a specialised plaster that we used to finish the walls of the home. We also used woods like iroko and teak, selecting those materials for their suitability and relevance to the project.

Now for something a bit more personal: what’s one indispensable trick/tool that you use to boost productivity during your work day?

I don’t eat breakfast. Everyday I fast until lunchtime and that keeps my mind sharp (along with several cups of black coffee). I also allocate blocks of time to the completion of specific tasks and try to stay vigilant about these.

Finally, if you could travel back in time and give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would that be?

Fiona Barratt Campbell

I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde. “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” That advice is particularly resonant for this day and age — when everyone and everything’s business is so very visible. Better to stay true to your core beliefs and vision.

Randy Lai